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An exhibition inspired by songs

Songs composed by East Coast tohunga Rikirangi Gage are the inspiration behind Gisborne artist Erena Koopu’s paintings for her exhibition Hei o Mo Apanui (food for the people of Apanui).

“Each work is a song,” says Koopu.

“Most have been performed at a competitive level by Te Whanau a Apanui.”

Te Whanau a Apanui is the name of Koopu’s iwi and the kapa haka group Koopu has performed with.

“Rikirangi writes songs based on our iwi and a lot about Te Kooti and the Ringatu faith as well our people who came to Aotearoa from Hawaiki.”

Each of Koopu’s circular paintings incorporates at least one theme from the composer’s haka, poi, action songs, and songs based on traditional lament.

“I’m passionate about his works and the stories he tells in them,” says the Toihoukura school of visual arts senior lecturer.

“They are my iwi’s narrative. I have tried to capture the story, the wairua and the feel of the songs. I tried to capture the way they are performed.”

The tondo, or circular form is new to Koopu. The circle is prominent in nature, she says. For example, we see it in whirlpools and in patterns in the sea.

“Rikirangi writes a lot about the sea.

“It’s new for me, to paint within circles. It’s a different perspective from painting in the square.”

In many of Gage’s compositions, the iwi leader acknowledges not only tipuna but people who are still alive, says Koopu. One of her works is based on a song about Maori party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell. Another painting is based on a song that acknowledges other composers.

The line work prominent in Koopu’s painting style suggests a lightness of touch, even in her deeper, darker themed works. Koopu cites Shane Cotton and Ralph Hotere as influences on her work.

Sparse areas in her paintings, commonly known as white space, are important to the artist.

“Sometimes that’s where magic happens. Rikirangi is a Ringatu tohunga. He practises a faith where a lot of observance would be a kind of meditation. From that silence you get meaning.”

The exhibition will include looped footage of kapa haka performances of Gage’s songs Koopu has based her paintings on.

Hei o Mo Apanui, paintings by Erena Koopu, opens at Tairawhiti Museum on Friday at 5.30pm and will run until June 24.

HEI O MO APANUI: Toihoukura senior lecturer Erena Koopu installs her paintings based on an East Coast tohunga’s songs in Tairawhiti Museum. Picture by Liam Clayton